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Imagining a migration system for Australia’s future

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International students from China walk along the waterfront by the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, 24 June 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Loren Elliott).

In Brief

Published in March 2023, The Migration System for Australia's Future report outlines impending challenges and trade-offs that the federal government will face in developing Australia's immigration policies. It identifies key areas for reform, highlighting the need to achieve a careful balance between immigration growth and social trust, mitigating labour exploitation and protecting Australia's higher education sector, while also recognising the foreign relations and development implications that immigration carries.


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As a percentage of its population, Australia has one of the highest rates of immigration in the
democratic world. It is also a country that is frequently emulated in terms of its skilled, asylum and
integration policies. What happens in Australia with regards to immigration policy reform has
implications for many other nations.

Immigration policy reform in Australia in recent years has seen seminal policy reviews into the exploitation of migrants, Australia’s net overseas migration and the nature of international student migration. Published in March 2023, the Migration System for Australia’s Future report (known as the Parkinson Review) is a product of these reviews and policy debates.

When the Parkinson Review was published in March 2023, it was met with differing reactions. This landmark policy statement outlines a series of trade-offs and challenges that the government will have to reckon with in formulating Australia’s immigration program over future decades. Appropriate responses to these trade-offs will require a careful balancing of competing factors.

The first challenge will be to balance immigration growth and social trust. Evidence from Australia and overseas shows that immigration systems are most likely to be accepted by society when they are well managed. When there are concerns about increased immigration and competition with the domestic population, or where conflict emerges over scarce resources, anti-immigrant sentiment tends to increase.

The Review reveals that trust in Australia’s immigration system was at its highest in 2021, when immigration was at its lowest since World War II due to protracted COVID-19 border closures. Sharp and unanticipated increases in net overseas migration, even in multicultural societies like Australia, can hamper social trust in immigration.

This does not mean that immigration programs should be driven by popular opinion, but does highlight that immigration is likely to become more politically challenging for governments when it reaches a certain level. This is especially the case if there are perceived negative externalities such as labour market exploitation or a strain on housing availability or other infrastructure.

While there is limited economic evidence that the scale of immigration into Australia affects domestic unemployment, a core argument of the Review is that minimising inequality in the labour market and upholding the principle of a ‘fair go’ are key to ensuring support for future immigration programs.

The Review identifies some areas for reform that the government has already or is currently implementing, such as tripartite management and visa mobility. Under tripartite management, representatives from industry, unions and government will be able to make recommendations and provide input on labour market gaps. Greater mobility for temporary visas holders will allow them to seek employment across a whole sector rather than their visa being linked to one single employer, which will put them at less risk of exploitation.

The Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold was also raised from AU$53,900 (US$35,400) to AU$70,000 (US$46,000). This is consistent with evidence that lower paid migrants are more likely to experience labour exploitation than those in higher salary brackets.

Extending the Pacific Island Mobility (PALM) visa could provide more opportunities for low and semi-skilled workers to enter Australia. But the PALM visa has also been the subject of underpayment concerns and so it is unclear whether entry through this visa would solve some of the exploitation issues that bedevilled the skilled migration visa.

Other changes proposed in the Review, such as reframing the subclass 485 Temporary Graduate visa to service a small number of in-demand areas or high calibre graduates, could see significant reductions in international student flows. But any such reduction is likely to see pushback from the higher education sector among other affected groups. It is perhaps on this basis that the proposed changes (if any) to the Temporary Graduate visa have not yet been announced by government.

The Review found that the labour market outcomes of many international graduates has declined and are not commensurate with their levels of tertiary training. This has left large numbers of Temporary Graduate visa holders with low salaries and created a growing income gap between them and domestic graduates. The Review recommends either guaranteeing that a small number of high-quality international students will gain permanent residency or shortening the maximum duration of Temporary Graduate visas, both of which are likely to see reductions in the overall number of international students with post-study work rights.

Given that these rights are an attractive element of Australia’s international student model, any reduction in such rights could have flow-on effects for the higher education sector as a whole. Achieving the correct balance between better regulation of the immigration system and protecting a critical dimension of Australia’s higher education will be another key challenge in reforming immigration policy.

Underpinning any reform will be the challenge of creating effective policy in a complex immigration system that overlaps with various other sectors, such as higher education, the labour market and even Australia’s fiscal settings.

Any immigration system design must contend with the independent decision-making of millions of potential migrants. Oftentimes immigration policies do not have the scale of effect that is intended or even the desired impact due to the unanticipated consequences of policy design. The potential externalities of any immigration policy will need to be part of the government’s calculus. Careful program design and reliance on empirical data will be a core aspect of this reform agenda to ensure that policy responses are as targeted as possible.

Immigration carries both foreign relations and foreign development implications and as such is a central pillar for protecting Australia’s ties to the region. Strengthening relationships with Pacific nations through visa schemes could carry clear development benefits and elevate Australia’s international standing more broadly.

Anna Boucher is Chair of the Discipline of Government of International Relations and Associate Professor in Public Policy and Comparative Politics at the University of Sydney.

One response to “Imagining a migration system for Australia’s future”

  1. Overwhelmingly, the message given us is that Ms Boucher shares Mr Parkinson’s conviction that immigration – presumably at levels Australia has experienced for all of this century – is necessary, although for reasons only vaguely alluded to; that immigration is good for us – if only we could learn to ignore its consequences; and that we must expect to have much, much more of it – whether we like it or not!
    Her special purpose it seems, is to advise that, if it is to overcome public disaffection and maintain its business-as-usual approach to immigration, the Australian Government must plan, and plan carefully; the public’s opposition is misguided, malleable and open to the effects of better management– and here’s how to change it!
    Sadly, not once does Ms Boucher step beyond the immigration is good, necessary, and inevitable message to a serious exploration of contrary views and why these are held. Had she done so, she would have understood that her principal thesis is fundamentally flawed; opposition to more-of-the-same immigration is not malleable and will become more resistant, not less. Moreover, had she dug deeper still, she might have begun to question her own acquiescence in policies that can never take us where we wish and need to be.
    So, let’s try to do these things for her. First, however, it is important to understand that the issue Ms Boucher believes she is addressing is not immigration, but growth, and growth of a perpetual nature. The issue is the viability – and the desirability – of an economic system predicated on ever more people, consuming more and more, forever. The distinction is important because the opposition to growth is a response to challenges that neither care nor planning can prevent, if the intention is to keep immigration at volumes sought by Ms Boucher, Mr Parkinson, our political leaders and their rich and powerful backers. Although the negative consequences of growth can be mitigated or ameliorated, they cannot be avoided and will, therefore, over time guarantee the diminution of our natural spaces, and the decline in our quality of life. Avoidance requires an end to growth.
    The most compelling element of Ms Boucher’s analysis was her reference to the level of ‘trust’ Australians have placed in the immigration program over time. She notes that this trust was at its highest in 2021 at a time when the volume of immigration was at its lowest. Here was the invitation for Ms Boucher to grasp that what she was really dealing with was not immigration, but Australians attitude to the impact of population growth and its obvious and unavoidable consequences. This opportunity, alas, escaped her.
    Ms Boucher was being disingenuous when subsequently suggesting that concerns about immigration/growth had only emerged with the aberrant post-covid policy of the Labor Government and the recent massive influx of migrants. Had she investigated further, she would have discovered surveys that indicate most Australians believe the Australian population is large enough and that they do not wish it to grow further. They are aware, in a way Ms Boucher is not, that there is so much more to be lost than gained in this endless pursuit of growth.
    As for the question of trust, here we find the nexus with which Ms Boucher fails to come to terms in a meaningful way. The evidence is clear; whatever their thoughts on immigrants and migrants, Australians no longer want never-ending population growth. Boucher and Parkinson, et al, view immigration as an essential, desirable, non-negotiable vehicle to growth. How, then, to build and maintain trust in immigration at the volumes they seek when such volumes will produce the disastrous consequences of growth Australians oppose?
    And what, by the way, is Ms Boucher’s response to this 2021 Trust survey? It is this: The question of trust “does not mean that immigration programmes should be driven by popular opinion, but it does highlight that immigration is likely to become more politically challenging for governments when it reaches a certain level.” A dilemma indeed when those ‘certain levels’ are reached the moment immigration grows our population. Oh, and how better to grow public trust than to ignore public opinion!
    Having questioned the role public sentiment and opinion should play in immigration policy – it is interesting to note that which follows later:
    “Any immigration system design must contend with the independent decision-making of millions of potential migrants. Immigration carries both foreign relations and foreign development implications and as such is a central pillar for protecting Australia’s ties to the region.” While her meaning is obscure, the imputation is that we must grow merely because others expect us to – and insist we do – and that, while we might reasonably ignore the will of the Australian people, we must work very hard in the future to anticipate and cater for the needs of our migrants! And then there is this: “Underpinning any reform will be the challenge of creating effective policy in a complex immigration system that overlaps with various other sectors, such as higher education, the labour market and even Australia’s fiscal settings.”
    Yes, we might (we will!) ignore the sentiment of the Australian people, but we must listen carefully to those with vested interest.
    The reference to higher education is telling and refers to the close collaboration between the tertiary education sector and the Department of Immigration; our new faux, education system with an insatiable appetite that trades monetary gain (not education) for visas and permanent residency.
    We can note that, inexplicably, Ms Boucher anticipates no environmental or ecological problems with this perpetual growth!
    Where, I ask Ms Boucher, will all this growth take us? What, in the end, is its purpose? What sacrifices are to be made to secure it? What must be surrendered to make it happen? Will it have an end? If so, when? And how will we deal with this end to this immigration-fed growth model — when it ends, as it must — if, according to your own reckoning, there are tens of millions more dependent on it? You address none of these questions, but they are by far the most important, for:
    We know that this vast immigration-fed economic growth has done little or nothing for the average Australian and any advantage gained finds its way to a very few. GDP grows, GDP per capita hardly at all. Yet, who carries the burden of this growth via congestion, expensive housing, strained education and health services and so on? There are much better ways to achieve growth and with none of the attendant consequences! Participation and productivity spring into view!
    We know that immigration does little or nothing to reduce unemployment or underemployment. In the past several days, the Government was talking up 500 000 new jobs at this moment while ignoring a strong rise in unemployment. We know that our population has grown by over 600 000 in the past year. So, what are we to take from this?
    We know that all our environmental challenges are a consequence of ever-growing human population and our ever-growing consumption. (We find reference to this in the 2021 State of the Environment Report). Yet, Ms Boucher, as Mr Parkinson, would have us enshrine as our economic policy immigration-fed population-growth driving endless economic growth!
    We know that growth is disruptive. It requires infrastructure to accommodate, and this takes time to put in place; and then, almost as soon as it is completed, it is inadequate to the needs of more growth. We know, by way of contrast, that our natural spaces are finite and the consequences of evermore people is that these spaces become more crowded, inaccessible, and undermined.
    We know that our growing population delays and undermines our efforts to reduce emissions and limits the harmful effects of Climate Change. These harmful effects will be more severely felt in Australia than elsewhere and will be manifestly increased by our ever-growing population.
    We know that high immigration does little or nothing to address our so-called ageing crisis and so-called skills crisis. A glance at our current demographic pyramid shows us that we are well into a ‘midi-boom’ (not a baby boom of the post-war years but a boom in the middle years) which, unless we grow our population-growth forever, will create serious challenge for future generations (ie. our children, grand-children and their children). And what of the challenges and consequences of this growth we use to avoid the consequences of past growth?! As for our skills crisis, the notion that high immigration solves this is nonsense. High immigration is the cause of all shortages for it perpetually creates demand!
    We know that our immigration system routinely poaches the most able, educated, and affluent from countries that require these able, educated and affluent more than we ever will.
    We know that but a mere fraction of our immigration is either humanitarian or altruistic. Neither condition, therefore, is an excuse for existing volumes. We know we can meet all our international humanitarian obligations, and build on them, within a volume of immigration vastly below what we currently have and which is currently projected — and do no harm to anyone.
    We know that growth is not progress; we know that, at some point, growth is regressive. That point is now. Ask the Australian people!
    We know that the Australian people are conscious of all these things and that these are among the reasons why they have been telling our developers, big business, our political leaders, and our academics, that they have had enough.

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